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SF Mayor's Bid to Raise $25 Million for Pandas Spurs Skepticism Amid Budget Crunch

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Giant panda Tian Bao is pictured at the Pairi Daiza Zoo in Brugelette, Belgium, June 2, 2024. The Belgian Pairi Daiza Zoo celebrated the 8th birthday of giant panda Tian Bao on Sunday. (Zhao Dingzhe/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Mayor London Breed is one step closer to beginning her $25 million fundraising drive to bring pandas from China to San Francisco. This move would require waiving city ethics rules on private donations, raising eyebrows at a time when potential budget cuts could lead to fewer services for children and families.

Government officers are usually barred by ethics law from soliciting private entities with business before the city to donate to charitable purposes or outside groups such as nonprofits. The Board of Supervisors must grant a waiver of the so-called behested payments ordinance for Breed to fundraise for the proposed San Francisco Zoo panda enclosure from entities that could seek to influence her.

On Thursday, the Board of Supervisors’ Government Audit & Oversight Committee voted unanimously to approve the limited waiver and advance it to the full board, which is expected to consider it at a meeting on Tuesday.

Breed is leveraging private funds for the pandas to avoid tapping city coffers as San Francisco contends with balancing a projected $789 million two-year budget deficit.

She secured the agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association to bring the pandas in 2025, which she has argued would be a boon to the San Francisco Zoo. In 1984, two pandas visited the zoo for three months and drew more than 260,000 visitors, roughly four times the average attendance at that time, according to the mayor’s legislation.


But her critics have argued Breed is leveraging the pandas to bolster her image in the Chinese community, a vital electorate, during a challenging reelection campaign — and questioned the optics of raising millions of dollars for pandas during a budget crunch.

Others have raised concerns about the San Francisco Zoo’s aging facilities, which allegedly led to the death of a gorilla and a penguin in recent years.

Fleur Dawes, a spokesperson for the advocacy group In Defense of Animals, told the supervisors during public comment on Thursday that San Francisco is ill-equipped to care for pandas.

“The San Francisco Zoo has a decadeslong history of gross mismanagement,” she said. “Some enclosures are 70 years old and unsuitable for animal care.”

Supervisor Dean Preston said he worked with Breed on amendments that would allow Breed to raise money for zoo upgrades more broadly instead of just for pandas.

“There were understandable concerns about the ability of the zoo to take on a project like this,” Preston said. “We are doing what we can in this resolution by explicitly broadening the waiver of allowable uses so the mayor’s office can reach out for funds.”

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Also during the Thursday committee meeting, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Preston blasted the mayor for previously proposing to cut roughly $24 million in city funding — nearly the same amount as the proposed panda enclosure would cost — to family services provided by nonprofits, and then backtracking in a hurry without a clear plan.

In her budget proposal announcement last Friday, Breed said she had restored nearly all of that funding. However, the supervisors allege that back-and-forth led to chaos.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families uses those dollars to fund numerous grants that nonprofits use to administer programs such as summer school, adult escorts to help kids walk to school, or mental health support for teens. After the cuts, DCYF told some organizations they’d receive zero dollars – and even with money back in the budget, it could be too late to restore funding to some nonprofits, supervisors said.

“As a former director of a nonprofit agency, I understand how difficult it is to know that you’ve got funding one day and moving forward, you’re not going to have that funding,” said Dr. Maria Su, the executive director of DCYF.

Safaí, who is running for mayor, said during the committee meeting he believes Breed restored some of the funding after family nonprofits applied political pressure in the media.

“It’s embarrassing to talk about raising money for pandas and cutting money for kids in the same breath,” Safaí said, adding that leaving some programs out from the budget proposal’s restored funding is “not fair to the families, it’s not fair to the children. And we still don’t know what the [funding] shortfall is.”

Staffers from more than a dozen groups who faced cuts pleaded with the Board of Supervisors on Thursday for help. Melody Daniel, chief program officer for Hunters Point Family, a nonprofit serving families in the historically Black and economically challenged Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, said her organization did not receive its usual funding from DCYF.

Hunters Point Family will be forced to lay off 18 staffers – its entire youth program department – without those dollars, Daniel told KQED.

“These families will now be left with no summer programming in Bayview-Hunters Point,” Daniel told the supervisors during public comment.

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